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Catholic students largely exonerated in diocese probe of Washington encounter

Catholic students largely exonerated in diocese probe of Washington encounter
Nick Sandmann, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, stands in front of Nathan Phillips, who is playing a traditional drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via Associated Press)

An investigation released Wednesday into an encounter between Covington Catholic High School students and Native American activists at the Lincoln Memorial last month largely supports the students' accounts of the incident which prompted immediate and widespread condemnation of the boys after a video of the encounter went viral.

A short video clip showed Native American Nathan Phillips, playing a traditional drum in an apparent standoff with a smiling student, Nick Sandmann, who was wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. The Kentucky Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School, a private school which arranged the trip, were among those initially condemning the boys' actions in the video.

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The report, prepared for the diocese by Greater Cincinnati Investigation Inc. and dated Monday, employed four licensed investigators for approximately 240 hours to take statements from students and chaperones, as well as to interview third-party witnesses and review about 50 hours of video. Investigators were not able to interview either Phillips or Sandmann in person and instead reviewed the student's written account.

The investigators said they found no evidence that the students responded in an offensive manner to the Black Hebrew Israelites, another group that was protesting near where the incident occurred, or that they chanted "Build the Wall." After asking chaperones, they performed a school cheer, according to the report, to drown out the Black Hebrew Israelites who were reportedly taunting them.

Other key findings include testimony that the students felt "confused" by Phillips' approach. Investigators said they found no evidence of "racist or offensive statements by students to Mr. Phillips," though some performed a "tomahawk chop."

According to the report, one of the chaperones told students that if "they engaged in a verbal exchange with the Black Hebrew Israelites, they would receive detention when returning to school."

According to the report, most boys bought the red hats bearing President Trump's MAGA slogan in Washington on the day of the March for Life. In previous years, some students bought "Hope" hats in support of President Obama, the report says.

The Bishop of Covington welcomed the report in a statement on the diocese's website. Roger Foys wrote that he was pleased "that my hope and expectation expressed in my letter to you of 25 January that the results of our inquiry ... would 'exonerate our students so that they can move forward with their lives' has been realized."

In a joint statement with the school, the diocese denounced the boys' behavior the day after the march, calling it "opposed to the church's teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person."

"We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general," the statement read.

Foys later wrote that he was "bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely" and that it is "important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate."

The report does not provide any recommendations for future changes, such as banning political attire or changes to chaperone protocol. Many people were critical that the adults in charge did not intervene more forcefully to avoid or end the interactions.

Nor does the report address underlying issues of diversity that were raised before it was released, including by local NAACP leader Jerome Bowles.

Any missteps, Bowles suggested, occurred before the students left for Washington.

"There has to be a look at diversity in the diocese in general. Covington Catholic is a very academically proficient educational institution, no one questions that. But is the school totally preparing students for the work force and a diverse world?" he asked.

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